By Rick Morris
As is the case in the NHL, the NBA features a fairly geographically compact Western Conference Final series, one that could stir echoes of the Red River Shootout. But unlike the Stanley Cup Playoffs with San Jose and Vancouver, these ones feature two teams not necessarily expected to be here.
Oklahoma City is regarded as THE young team on the rise in the Association, but 2011 might have been thought of as a bit soon for their debut at this level (with the word debut only being appropriate if you consider their lineage as separate from the Seattle Sonics). And Dallas, having been considered one of the premier postseason underachievers of the last decade, was given little to no chance of getting here inasmuch as they were going to have to overcome the two-time defending NBA Champion Lakers. In one of the biggest shockers in recent sports history, they did just that in four straight.
Now, having overcome the demons of recent seasons, they are regarded as favorites because of their vastly superior playoff experience. In particular, Dirk Nowitzki – who has played some of the best ball of his career in these playoffs – lost in the 2006 Finals in a series marred by horrible officiating. Another of the key leaders on this team, Jason Kidd, quarterbacked New Jersey to Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003.
In a state that really loves its country music, it’s fitting that Kidd and other key pieces of the core embody the sentence “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler have summoned key elements of their best selves and held up to the grind through two rounds of the playoffs. Point guard Juan Barea has shown that the post-Kidd future should be OK in Big D as he has been one of the more significant bench players in the playoffs. Amazingly, the team has thrived notwithstanding the injury-related absences thus far of Roddy Beaubois and Caron Butler.
Across the court from the Mav bench will be a squad that only mustered a 1-2 mark against them this year. The Thunder differs from Dallas in that they have a second 20-plus scorer in developing all-world point guard Russell Westbrook – who can still prove thrilling and infuriating at this stage of his career. That factoid is the main reason OKC edged Dallas in scoring this year, 104.8 to 100.2. Of more concern to the Mavs, perhaps, is the fact that the Thunder outrebounded them, 3,507-3,398 and also beat them in offensive rebounds, 903-780 – notwithstanding the fact that they only had Kendrick Perkins for the latter part of the season. To a team like Dallas that has shined in the postseason on the strength of superlative jump-shooting, the notion that they may not get too many second chances must be daunting.
Interestingly, neither team has a 10-rebound-a-game player, instead collecting several gritty, long players who average just below that. There will surely be some heated moments down on the blocks when the likes of Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison start mixing it up with Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood.
The key matchup will come at point guard when Westbrook can either embarrass Kidd with his vastly superior offense or be made to look ridiculous by the savvy veteran. Honestly, that one’s a toss-up, which is great for Dallas at this advanced stage of the now-ironically-named Kidd’s career. And while it is not a head-to-head matchup, the megastar showdown between the veteran Nowitzki and the man bidding to become the player of the next decade, Kevin Durant, will be the one that storyline-obsessed ESPN spends approximately 90% of each broadcast discussing. Aside from a slight edge in PPG (28-26.5), Dirk has had the edge in several other key areas and has the benefit of years of springtime hoops experience to help get him through. His experience, that of his fellow rotation players and the home-court advantage, get Dallas through a battle that will test them sorely given their slight deficit on the boards and bigger deficit in firepower without Butler. Oklahoma City’s time is surely coming. But even without LA to block them one more year, another veteran squad has popped up for one more run. Dallas over Oklahoma City in 7 (picks are 5-3 in the first round and 4-0 in the second round) and Dallas over Chicago in 6 in the Finals.